Artist O has ball finding lost spheres
Karen Bjornland - Gazette
Artist O has ball finding lost spheres
from The Schenectady Gazette, written by Karen Bjornland
They once were lost but now are found. Thousands and thousands of balls. Balls for dribbling, for pingpong and tennis. Balls that were smacked by bats, balls that bounced along the beach. Even a mirrored ball that once spun and flashed at a discotheque.
And now, people from places as far away as Baltimore and the Baltic Sea are sending these balls to Mass MoCA.
It's all because of Danny O, a Massachusetts artist who found that while taking walks to soothe his troubled soul, he often would discover a lost ball.
"There's a meditative practice in the walking, the searching," says O, who grew up in Lexington, near Boston, and now lives and works in North Adams, just minutes from Mass MoCA.
"It's a quest for joy."
What started five years ago as one man's solitary search for sphere has snowballed into a gigantic artwork that's getting bigger every day.
"People bring them; they send them," says O, standing on the polished wood floor of the art museum and looking into a sea of 17,000 balls of many colors, sizes and textures that are corralled into an oval. Like a "Where's Waldo?" picture book, if look long and hard, and image of a boy materializes from deep within the cowhide, plastic and rubber.
Danny O's "Ball Walk" is part of "Game Show," The museum's current exhibit through April, in which several artists explore the ideas of chance, rule systems and play. Two years ago, O's "Have You Seen My Ball?," found balls arranged on a wall panel, appeared at Boston's DeCordova Museum in the group show "On the Ball: The Sphere in Contemporary Sculpture."
"Ball Walk" has also caught the attention of the "Guinness Book of World Records," which has sent O the paper work for "the world's largest artwork made solely from found balls."
As therapy or spiritual practice, ball walking could even go global, O says.
The rules are simple: Go on a quiet walk, alone or with others, and look for a ball or the remnants of a ball. Moss covered, ripped and worn, dirty and deflated ones are fair game; new or stolen balls are out of bounds.
There's nothing better than finding a ball," says O, describing skeptics who have come around after gleefully discovering their first ball.
O, whose legal name is Daniel O'Connor, sees the ball or sphere as "the highest form in the found-object family," a shape symbolic of planet Earth, a drop of water or the tiniest atomic particle.
Visitors reacted while O was installing "Ball Walk," which began last April with 6,500 balls arranged in a circle.
"People would start laughing," O says, and tell him about their childhood. "More than a few times, these grown men in business suits would tear up. Everyone had a ball story."
In October, when O moved "Ball Walk" to a different part of the museum, he sorted the balls by color, and created the pointillistic image of a boy holding his hands binocular-like over his eyes.
"He's looking for something," says O. "He's looking for truth. He's looking for art."
While "Ball Walk" is uplifting for O, it sprang from the grief he suffered seven years ago when Alex, the infant son he was awaiting, was stillborn, and he and the baby's mother ended their relationship. Escaping his Boston studio for the ocean after a particularly sad winter, O set up his easel on the beach to paint a landscape.
"I saw all this colorful plastic before I could even squirt any paint out of the tube," he says.
He gathered hundreds of bottle tops and other manmade debris. Eventually, he threw everything out, except for 76 balls.
"I began to walk and pray. And I began to find things. Through these troubled times, I created this fun?.It showed me the strength that humanity has."
Soon, O's artist friends picked up on ball walking. They left balls at his house, hanging them from the doorknob in plastic bags. Then O decided to organize group ball walks with his friends.
"We were locked into calm, quiet looking," he says. "Sometimes, we'd find 1,000 balls in one day."
During these ball walks, O observed the envy, greed and competition the inevitably surfaced as some searchers found balls and others did not.
"All these feelings come up?It was the nature of little kids."
Like a kindly father, he would remind them: "Finding and not finding are equal?.If you don't find a ball, it's OK?Whatever it is, it is."
After hundreds of ball walks, O knows where they hide.
The edges of marshes and rivers are good places, and he ahs put on hip boots, launched
canoes and battled mosquitoes to capture hundreds of balls trapped among reed and rocks.
He finds them behind malls and abandoned buildings. They get stuck at the bottom of waterfalls, where they tumble around for years.
"It's always in a no-man's land that I find them," he says.
When O walks in a city, he notices the slope of the streets, and follows sewers to their outlets, on the path a ball might travel. "You give them a quarter-inch of water and they are traveling?fast," O says.
Once, the police pulled him over after a report of a suspicious stranger. "I'm the ball artist," he told the officer, who looked at him as if her were crazy. But when O opened his trunk, packed with balls, the policeman just smiled.
"The ball is the quintessential American icon," O says. "When someone buys a ball, they invest in a certain amount of joy."
He's fascinated by balls as recycled material, the re-animation that happens when they turn into artwork.
In "Ball Walk," more than 5,000 tennis balls, in weather-worn shades of gray, white and green, become a neutral background for the bigger, more colorful balls.
If someone predicted that O, age 38, would be a ball artist, he's have said they'd lost their marbles.
Gifted in art as a child, he grew up in a working-class family. His art training was traditional, not conceptual, with degrees from Boston University and Cooper Union. "Danny O" became his nickname and signature in the 1980s, when he served in the Navy for five years and designed surfing T-shirts for his sailor buddies.
In August, O moved from Boston to North Adams to take a job as an artist with Boxcar Media, a Web design and multimedia company.
Moving to the mountains has opened up new territory for ball walking, which continues to nourish his spirit and connect him with other people.
Through the Internet, O found another ball artist, Michael Davy of Toronto, who coincidentally started searching for lost balls with his dog in the same year that O began.
Maybe "God is watching," O says, Maybe it "needed to happen."
O finds balls in surprising places, following hunches. He once dreamed about four yellow balls in the park, woke up the next day and found them exactly as his dream described.
Then there was the stranger, a Boston business man who read about "Ball Walk." Divorced, he had drifted emotionally from his two sons. Searching for balls with O, father and sons found 85 balls in four hours and from that day one, their relationship has become stronger.
"I can't explain the weird things," O says. "There's a certain level of magic?Sometimes I can't decide whether to dismiss it or embrace it."
As the snow falls in the mountains, O will take a break from his search. But come spring, he'll be walking again.
"They're out there," he says with a sly smile. "They're talking among themselves. They're saying, 'We're going to be rescued.'"
"Ball Walk" by Danny O runs through April 2002 at Mass MoCA. Found balls can be deposited in an outdoor wire pen near the entrance of Mass MoCA or mailed to "Ball Walk", 87 Marshall St., North Adams, MA 01247.
For information on ball walking, visit Danny O's Web site at www.dannyo43.com.